This January, the Center for American Progress (CAP) declared it would no longer accept funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “With a rising undemocratic tide around the world, and serious questions about which side of that struggle our own president stands on, it seemed clear that all Americans should take extra steps and leave no doubt where they stand,” a spokesperson for CAP told the Guardian.
The pledge came amid public outcry over Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Since 2014, CAP had received between $1.5 million and $3 million from the UAE, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. CAP, founded by Clinton staffer John Podesta, is widely seen as the think tank that wields the most influence on the Democratic Party. During this time, the group had been conspicuously silent on the U.S.-UAE-Saudi war on Yemen, which was condemned by human rights groups.
But CAP appears not to have taken all steps to rid itself of UAE influence. According to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records, which disclose lobbyists’ financial relationships with foreign governments, a high-level CAP staffer continued meeting with a UAE lobbyist for at least eight months after CAP pledged to stop taking UAE donations.
FARA filings show that Harbour Group, a lobbying firm, received $2,863,574.34 from the UAE and $160,008.09 from Saudi Arabia during the six-month period ending on March 31, 2019.
That same filing shows that, during this time period, Richard Mintz, managing director of Harbour Group, had “multiple contacts” with Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at CAP known for his close relationship with the UAE. These meetings extended from October 1 to March 30, indicating they continued for two months after CAP pledged it would stop taking UAE money. While the record does not disclose details of these meetings, it says the topic of their discussions were “UAE foreign policy.”
It didn’t stop there. A newly released FARA filing shows that, from April 1 to September 30, Harbour lobbyists repeatedly met and communicated with Katulis. During that time period, the lobbying firm received $3,558,776.35 from the UAE (no U.S. lobbying payments from Saudi Arabia were listed).
While FARA documents are scant on details, frustrating transparency advocates, the filing notes that Richard Mintz, managing director of Harbour Group, met with Katulis from April 1 to September 30. Under “subject matter,” the filing merely states “Iran/Yemen/Red Sea” — three top geopolitical concerns of the UAE.
The same filing notes that two other Harbour Group lobbyists had contact with Katulis: Adam Sharon who had a “lunch, catch-up meeting” with him on August 22, and Matthew Triaca, who sent Katulis an email on August 29.
The two FARA documents only list meetings up to the end of September, so the meetings may be ongoing.
While these meetings do not contradict CAP’s statement that it is no longer receiving UAE money, it does raise questions about ongoing UAE influence.
Asked for comment, CAP spokesperson Sam Hananel told In These Times via email, “The Center for American Progress no longer accepts funding from the United Arab Emirates. Following the conclusion of the grant period, CAP staff finalized and submitted reports associated with past work.”
CAP declined repeated requests to comment on the content of the meetings between Mintz and Katulis. The refusal is notable, given that CAP has called for increased transparency on lobbying disclosures, citing the threat of Russian interference.
Harbour Group and Mintz did not respond to requests for an interview. CAP declined on Katulis’ behalf.
Think tanks meet with all sorts of people, and a meeting alone does not prove undue political influence. However, a large number of meetings over a significant time span suggests a closer relationship, and one more likely to be mutually beneficial.
CAP and Katulis’ relationship with UAE lobbyists goes back further. A recent report by Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy found that UAE “foreign agents,” most commonly Harbour’s Richard Mintz, contacted Katulis “at least 11 times according to their 2018 FARA filings, primarily regarding a ‘CAP group trip to UAE/KSA’ in late April and early May 2018,” writes Freeman (who also provided In These Times the FARA documents for this article.). The records show that then, as now, Mintz was the main contact for Katulis.
The report, further, notes that CAP was among the top five think tanks most contacted by the UAE in 2018.
CAP has long exerted significant influence over the center of the Democratic Party, and played a tremendous role in shaping Obama administration policy, with Time reporting in 2008 that “not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway.” Katulis’ bio boasts his political influence, noting that, “for more than a decade, he has advised senior U.S. policymakers on foreign policy and has provided expert testimony several times to key congressional committees.”
Katulis, meanwhile, wears another hat: He is a senior advisor to Albright Stonebridge Group, a “global business strategy firm” with offices in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE office is led by Jad Mneymneh, who previously served in the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi’s Office of Strategic Affairs.
While a spokesperson for the firm said its does not lobby the U.S. government or take on “client work that involves activities covered by FARA,” journalist Lee Fang noted on Twitter that the group is an influence peddler.
While the firm may not partake in activities that warrent FARA reporting, its staffer — Katulis — does perform such activities at CAP, like testifying before Congress.
There is reason to think that Katulis’ relationships have had an impact. A January 16 Intercept report by Ryan Grim and Clio Chang found that, in the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, Katulis objected to an initial statement from CAP condemning Saudi Arabia for the murder and calling for concrete consequences. Thanks to Katulis’ input, the statement was watered down and instead called for “additional steps to reassess” the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
CAP’s statement that it would no longer take UAE funding came amid public scrutiny fueled, in part, by these revelations.
The implications of these ties are not theoretical. The Yemen war has killed at least 100,000 people, and the U.S.-Saudi-UAE coalition is responsible for more than 8,000 of 12,000 known civilian deaths, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project. For more than four and a half years, the powerful think tank has tacitly supported the Yemen War through its silence. Even as the mainstream of the Democratic Party turned against the war under President Trump, the think tank stayed mum, despite weighing in on a number of other foreign policy issues, from Russian interference in the election to Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal. During a heated ‑congressional effort to end U.S. support for the Yemen War by invoking the War Powers resolution, CAP was silent, coming out in support only after the resolution passed with broad Democratic backing. (It was ultimately vetoed by Trump in April.)
Some of Katulis’ own writing appears to contradict even CAP’s belated statement of “full support” for U.S. withdrawal from the Yemen War. In March 2019, Katulis and CAP chief operating officer Gordon Gray co-authored an article that played down the importance of ending U.S. support for the war.
“Ending U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition will not stop the war or address the humanitarian crisis,” they wrote. “Successfully and comprehensively addressing the grave situation in Yemen will require patient diplomacy, which inevitably will see ups and downs given the nature of the conflict and the combatants inside and outside Yemen.”
Though allegedly no longer funding CAP directly, the UAE government was likely delighted to see such a statement come from a leading Democratic Party-aligned think tank.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.